There are numerous definitions of the term wildflower. If you want to garden with wildflowers, you may develop your own definition based on how you intend to use these plants in the landscape. Gardening with wildflowers offers a continuum of uses. Wildflowers can be used in formal gardens with high maintenance, in less formal gardens with a “wildflower look,” or in a native plant garden that mimics natural landscapes. If you want only a “wildflower look” in your garden, you may choose common cultivated plants, packaged seed mixes, or fiber mats because they will be easier to grow.
Wildflowers, with the purpose of attracting wildlife or creating a native plant garden, follow a more ecological definition. A wildflower is a native, herbaceous flowering plant growing without the aid of human cultivation or domestication that can include grasses as well as grass-like and aquatic plants. Wildflowers growing in one area or country may not be wildflowers in another area. For example, the orange daylilies found growing along our roadsides are wildflowers in Asia but are exotic plants that have escaped cultivation in Kentucky.
Herbaceous is defined as not having a woody stem; also, the plant dies back to the ground during the dormant season. Native (or indigenous) means the plant has occurred in a natural habitat and geographic region for thousands of years. A cultivar of a wildflower is a plant that has been propagated and selected for specific characteristics such as flower size, disease resistance, blooming period, etc. Examples of cultivars of native species include black-eyed Susan ‘Goldsturm’ and purple coneflower ‘White Swan’ or ‘Magnus’.
If you are gardening to attract butterflies or wildlife, it is important that you use true wild stocks (obtained from a nursery specializing in native plants) for two reasons. Many cultivars of native plants sold by large nurseries and department stores may not be attractive to wildlife because they have been selected for traits like bloom size, bloom period, or disease resistance and not for nectar or seed production. Second, wildlife have adapted to using these wild stocks over thousands of years. If you desire to create a more natural habitat garden, you will want to use the same types of plants. (See list at bottom of this page)
An introduced or exotic plant has been introduced either accidentally or intentionally from outside its natural geographic range (often from Europe or Asia). Some exotic plants escape cultivation or spread from their point of introduction and become established and persist in the environment without the assistance of human activities. These plants are said to have become naturalized as part of the plant life of the area. Many people think of these plants as wildflowers, but they are not. Common examples of naturalized plants include Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, ox-eye daisy, orange daylily, blackberry lily, star-of-Bethlehem, dayflower, yellow wood-sorrel, mock strawberry, common cinquefoil, common chickweed, deptford pink, corncockle, dame’s rocket, bird’s-foot trefoil, crown vetch, purple loosestrife, butter-and-eggs, moth mullein, rocket larkspur, dandelion, and yarrow.
An invasive exotic plant is a plant that has escaped cultivation or has spread from its point of introduction. It has increased its numbers explosively and expanded its geographic range into locations where it previously was not found. Examples of invasive exotic plants include purple loosestrife; poison hemlock; garlic mustard; Queen Anne’s lace; tall fescue; nodding, bull, and Canada thistle; vinca major and vinca minor; ground ivy; Kobe, Korean, and sericea lespedeza; Dutch white clover, red clover, white and yellow sweet clover; leafy spurge; kudzu; common chickweed; speedwell; wild teasel; dame’s rocket; crown vetch, and many others. The U.S. Congress has documented that 15 exotic plants, excluding most agricultural weeds, cost the U.S. economy more than $600 million dollars annually, and the potential worst-case economic losses could be more than $4.5 billion from melaleuca, purple loosestrife, and witchweed. It has also been well documented that these plants have significantly affected many of our national parks and other wildland resources.
If you would like to learn how to garden with native plants and where to purchase them, here are a few sites to help you get started. Just click on a link to go to that site.